The Japanese give us two proverbs we should never forget. The first one says, “The tongue is but three inches long, yet it can kill a person six feet high.” The second one warns everyone: “The tongue is more to be feared than the sword.” This last one is parallel to a statement by the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras who said, “A wound from a tongue is worse than a wound form a sword; for the latter affects only the body, the former the spirit.” The Japanese and the Greek Philosopher are in harmony with the message which James, the brother of Jesus, speaks of in his epistle.
Recall the petition in the prayer Jesus taught which requests, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Evidentially for Jesus this was the most important part of the prayer for all of his disciples. Why ? The reason lines in that fact that upon conclusion of this “Model Prayer” Jesus returns to this particular portion dealing with forgiving others but makes no additional reference to any other portion of the Prayer. To Jesus forgiving others was tremendously important, but to us it is often the hardest thing He asks us to do.
How harmful is the human tongue? James paints a frightening picture of just how disastrous a force our tongues can be. He calls the tongue a fire. The fire he describes is not the cozy warmth of a fire place on a cold winter’s night but a picture of a destructive forest fire. He goes on to say the tongue is “set on fire by hell.” Devastating forest fires often begin with one small match that is carelessly tossed aside but mushroom into infernos that destroy an entire forests. So often it is the same with our tongues. Small, careless gossip so often devastates lives of individuals, families, and groups, even Churches and ministries.
The fiery tongue is dubbed “the very world of iniquity.” The tongue is so deadly, because it so often utters unjust, unrighteous, and wicked words. Of all our body parts, the tongue is the one member which “defiles the entire body.” Jesus Himself tells us in Matthew 15:11
, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” A defiled disciple of Jesus is unfit for use as an instrument in influencing others to follow Christ.
James continues building his case against the tongue by calling it a “restless” or “unruly” meaning it is an unrestrained, an uncontrollable evil. From this point he makes perhaps his strongest argument against the tongue by declaring, “It is full of deadly poison.” He is now talking about the venom of a poisonous snake. James might as well come right out and say the tongue is a “cobra” or an “asp,” for that is the exact implication he makes. The victim of a vicious tongue is in a worse condition than one actually bitten by a cobra. The Psalmist literally prays for divine rescue from such venomous tongues in Psalm 140
“Deliver me, O LORD, from evildoers;
protect me from those who are violent. . .
“They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s,
and under their lips is the venom of vipers.”--Psalm 140:1, 3
The tongue does have one redeeming quality, for “with it we bless God.” With our tongues we sing God’s praises. With our tongues we offer Him our prayers of Thanksgiving and our testimonies of praise for His goodness to us. The problem is that we then turn right around and curse our brothers and sisters who are the very image of the One we praise.
“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” --James 1:10
. A fountain can not give both fresh and bitter water from the same fount. A fig tree can not produce olives or a vine figs. Why then should the tongue speak both praises and curses? The Dead Sea, the Great Salt Lake, the oceans can not produce fresh water; so, why do we so often continue to exalt God and belittle our brothers and sisters with our tongues?
“No one can tame the tongue.” Just prior to this he says, “every species . . . has been tamed by the human race.” We can control the animal kingdom, but we cannot control our tongues; what hope do we have? If the tongue can not be controlled, are we doomed to failure and frustration? No! Verse eight would be more clearly understood, and in better keeping with James’ intent, if it were translated, “No human being can tame the tongue.” There is One Who can tame our tongues, and Scripture distinctly tells us who He is in Proverbs 16:1
: “. . . the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.” What is humanly impossible is no problem at all for God.
What a difference it would make in our personal spiritual lives, in the life of our Church, in the life our Community, and in all our interpersonal relations if we would remember these words from Proverbs before we ever utter harsh, critical, or unkind words about anyone: “the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.” If we submit to the control of the Spirit in all those difficult situations we face with others, the tongue will cease to be a fire, an uncontrollable evil, and a snake. Victory comes as we surrender our tongues to the Spirit’s control; “He is the answer for our tongues.” When we let God sanctify our tongues and take control of the words we speak then the tongue can be divinely tamed.